Favorite Comedies: The 20’s

If there ever was a golden age of comedy, it was the 1920’s. Three geniuses led the way: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. There were others of course, Harry Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, Snub Pollard, Mabel Normand, Larry Semon and Fatty Arbuckle among others. But it was the top three who reached the exhalted status of genius. Of the three, there was always a battle on who was the greatest. Lloyd always seemed to take the third spot. No disgrace considering the talent of the other two. Between Chaplin and Keaton, it’s always been a matter of individual taste. Chaplin was the sentimental artist with a social conscience. Keaton’s comedy was always more cerebral. I personally love both and have always went back and forth on who I thought was better. I have resigned myself to the fact that they both share the top spot.


You can read my first post in this series here.

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Tit for Tat (1935) Charley Rogers

    The comedy of Laurel & Hardy was at its best in the series of shorts they made before branching out in feature length films. Most of their features could not sustain the humor or the structure. Yes, there were exceptions like “Way Out West” and “Sons of the Desert”, however overall the shorts possess their best work. The 1935 “Tit for Tat” is one of Stan and Ollie’s best. It reflects their unique style of anarchistic comedy, which generally begins as a simple problem that escalates into a choreographed sequence of immature behavior compounded by deliberate malice and still more immature behavior, a tit for tat battle of the nitwits that ends in total destruction. That’s just what happens in this film, the only one of their works that references a previous film, in this case the 1934, “Them Thar Hills.” 

    Stan and Ollie open up an electric store right next to Charley Hall’s grocery store. Hall and his wife (Mae Busch) had a earlier run in with the boys in the previously mention 1934 short where an inebriated Stan and Ollie innocently get Mrs. Hall drunk to the disapproval of  Mr. Hall, leading to a tit for tat retaliation between the irate husband and the boys.

    With their new store ready to open, Stan and Ollie go next door to introduce themselves to their neighbor. To everyone’s displeasure, all remember each other. Mr. Hall plainly tells the boys he wants nothing to do with them. Back at their store, Ollie has climbed a ladder to screw in some light bulbs into their new outdoor sign. Stanley, mentally resistant to all around him, presses the up button on the outside elevator that Ollie happens to have his ladder on. As the ladder rises up, so does Ollie until he is forced to grab on to a window ledge that leads to the first story apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Hall next door. Ollie’s only recourse is to ask Mrs. Hall if he could come in through the window, which she graciously agrees too. Downstairs in the grocery store Mr. Hall watches as Ollie and Mrs. Hall come downstairs from his apartment. Unaware of how and why Ollie was upstairs, Mr. Hall accuses him of fooling around with his wife and tells him never to come back.

    Back in his own store Ollie is perturbed by Mr. Hall’s indecent accusation and goes back to the grocery store demanding an apology from Mr. Hall for accusing him of fooling around with his wife. Mr. Hall kicks the boys out of his store telling them not to return. Soon the retaliations begin; Stan and Ollie pour honey into Mr. Hall’s cash register. Mr. Hall goes to their store and destroys a group wrist watches putting them into a blender. The back and forth battle continues culminating with some hilarious creative uses of a crate of eggs and a bucket of lard.  

    While the tit for tat reprisals between the two store owners occupies all there attention, there is a running gag with a man who keeps entering Stan and Ollie’s store and walking out with an electrical appliance. They continuously see him leaving their store with another package under his arm and a greeting of “how do you do.” He does this again and again until the man finally backs up a truck and cleans out the entire store.

    While Laurel and Hardy humor may seem so simple, and they made it look so easy, the plots of their films are always well structured, the humor, building up to the next level of the joke flowing smoothly from the previous. Their characters were well defined, Stanley not very bright and Ollie only arguably a shade brighter bumble their way through every difficulty with bewilderment and frustration. “Tit for Tat” was well received by the public and by critics as well. The film was honored with a nomination for an Academy Award in the live short subject category.  They had previously won an Oscar for their three reel short, “The Music Box.”

Block-Heads (1938) John G. Blystone

Block-Heads (1938) is one of Laurel and Hardy’s best feature films and one of the last they made for Hal Roach Studios. Roach and Stan were soon in contract disputes resulting in Stan and Ollie leaving the Hal Roach Studios where so much of their great work was done. Unfortunately, after leaving the Roach Studios the teams work declined rarely reaching the quality of their earlier films.

    It is 1917 and World War I is raging. In a foxhole, among the soldiers are Stan and Ollie. The troops are told they are moving out all except for Stan who is to stay behind and guard the trenches until he is relieved. Stan and Ollie say goodbye and Ollie goes off into battle with the rest of the soldiers. Soon it is 1918, the war is over and the soldiers come home, all except for one. Time marches on and so does doughboy Stan, it is now1938, and Stan is still guarding the same trench marching back and forth, until a local pilot who he almost shoots down lands and tells him that the war has been over for twenty years.

    Meanwhile back home Ollie is now married and henpecked, to Mrs. Hardy (Minna Gombell). It is their one year anniversary and Ollie ask permission of his wife to go out and buy her something special, promising he will be back within an hour. On his way out, he first says good morning to Mrs. Gilbert, the beautiful Patricia Ellis, whose husband Mr. Gilbert (Billy Gilbert) is coming home after two months on safari. Ollie then heads toward the elevator meeting James the porter, who is reading a newspaper with headlines about a doughboy who did not know the war has been over for twenty years. Ollie say he cannot imagine anyone being that dumb. Then he sees Stan’s photo in the paper.

   Ollie heads down to the Soldiers Home where he finds Stan sitting in a wheelchair giving him the impression poor Stan lost a leg. They reminisce and Ollie invites Stan home for one of his wife’s great home cooked meals. When they arrive, Mrs. Hardy is not home. Stan asked permission if it is all right for him to smoke. Ollie assures him it is okay, so Stan lights up an imaginary pipe, even lighting the pipe with an imaginary lighter all which, bewilders Ollie. When Mrs. Hardy returns she is not happy to see “another of Ollie’s tramp friends.” She and Ollie get into a big fight resulting in her packing and leaving. From here things just get worst for the duo. Ollie insists on cooking Stan a meal that results with the gas stove exploding. When next door neighbor Mrs. Gilbert comes by and offers to help clean up the mess she is accidentally splashed all over her dress with a bowl of punch. Unfortunately, she locked herself out of her apartment so Ollie offers her a pair his pajamas so she can get out of her wet dress and not catch a cold. Unexpectedly, Mrs. Hardy comes back, causing Ollie to hide Mrs. Gilbert, by throwing slipcovers over her and having her position herself as a chair. Mrs. Hardy finds the house a mess and another argument ensues. When Mrs. Hardy stomps out of the room, Ollie moves Mrs. Gilbert into a large trunk, which Ollie and Stan try to move out of the apartment by claiming Ollie is now moving out. The fighting is over heard by Mr. Gilbert, who is just coming back to his apartment. He tries to calm everyone down only to discover, due to Stan’s big mouth that his wife is in the trunk in Ollie’s pajamas! Stan and Ollie run out of the apartment with Mr. Gilbert, chasing after them with one of his hunting rifles as the film ends. 

   Laurel and Hardy’s best work was in the short two-reelers they produced from the silent days up until 1935 at which time, they completely switched over to feature length films. Block-Heads clocks in at 57 minutes barely making it to feature length status; however, it is one of their best feature films. Block-Heads contains some wonderful surrealistic scenes like Stan’s previously mentioned imaginary pipe smoking and the shadow shades Stan continuously pulls down as the boys are climbing up thirteen flights of stairs (who else would live on the thirteen floor but our luckless heroes). There are plenty of straight out laughs, notably when Ollie first sets eyes on Stan and believes he lost a leg. This entire sequence is just hysterical. 

    What’s wonderful about Laurel and Hardy is how their work always starts at a slow pace and as the film goes along it builds up to a frantic and chaotic ending.  Five writers are credited with the screenplay including Harry Langdon. Look for the great Jimmy Finlayson who makes a cameo appearance in a humorous role as a gentleman who picks a fight with Ollie. While some folks may miss Mae Busch , Minna Gombell is as sharp tongued as Mrs. Hardy with some great lines, for example, when Ollie defends Stan saying he is different from his other friends, she replies, “I’ll say he’s different!”

    One notable fact is the change from the original ending. Today, the film that we see ends with Billy Gilbert shooting at the boys, followed by about a dozen or so men jumping out of apartment windows and running away, presumably all involved in tawdry affairs. The original ending had this scene fading to black and then we fades back in to big game hunter Billy Gilbert’s apartment where we see Stan and Ollie’s heads mounted on Gilbert’s wall along with his other prized shoots. The film ends with Ollie’s famous saying “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” This ending has been unfortunately snipped from most copies now shown.